Scientology leader to Clearwater: No new plans for downtown properties

In a meeting Monday with three top city officials, David Miscavige also said the church still wants to buy a waterfront lot the city acquired in 2017.
Three top Clearwater officials met on Monday with Scientology leader David Miscavige at the church's Flag Building on S Fort Harrison Avenue in downtown. It was the second meeting between the parties since late October.
Three top Clearwater officials met on Monday with Scientology leader David Miscavige at the church's Flag Building on S Fort Harrison Avenue in downtown. It was the second meeting between the parties since late October. [ DOUGLAS CLIFFORD | Times ]
Published Jan. 8, 2020|Updated Jan. 9, 2020

CLEARWATER — The Church of Scientology has no immediate plans to expand its downtown religious campus beyond the 3,600-seat auditorium being designed for Garden Avenue, Scientology leader David Miscavige told three top city officials this week.

Miscavige also has no plans for five properties that were part of the church’s retail proposal he announced in 2017 without city or public input. Those properties, purchased by the church through limited liability companies, included two empty blocks, a nine-story office tower and a vacant restaurant.

But when it comes to 90 other downtown commercial properties purchased by parishioner-run limited liability companies over the past three years, the Scientology leader suggested to city officials that “he doesn’t know anything” about them, according to City Manager Bill Horne.

“Right now he’s trying to differentiate” between what Scientology owns under its name and what is owned by other companies, Horne said. “I don’t think David will tell you they control the (limited liability companies) or the parishioner-owned properties. That doesn’t mean those property owners couldn’t be influenced by the church.”

City Manager Bill Horne [Courtesy of the City of Clearwater]
City Manager Bill Horne [Courtesy of the City of Clearwater]

Miscavige sat down Monday with Horne, Assistant City Manager Michael Delk and City Attorney Pam Akin at the church’s Flag Building for only the second meeting between the parties in nearly three years. The last meeting took place on Nov. 6, two weeks after a Tampa Bay Times investigation showed that companies tied to Scientology spent $103 million buying downtown real estate since 2017.

RELATED: How Scientology doubled its downtown Clearwater footprint in 3 years

Scientology spokesman Ben Shaw did not respond to requests for comment on the meeting.

As described by city officials, Monday’s meeting provided little more substantive detail about the ownership of most of the real estate around the city-owned downtown waterfront and the church’s international spiritual headquarters. Limited liability companies are required by law to disclose operators of the entities but not their owners.

Horne said he “did not probe deeply into any perceived relations" the church has with the limited liability companies, but that Miscavige contended he was not directly involved in properties not owned outright by the church.

Horne said Miscavige offered to provide a map of church-owned properties to the city. According to Pinellas County Property Appraiser records, Scientology owns 58 properties in Clearwater, 49 of which are downtown.

“I’m trying to take every conversation we have as an opportunity to kind of gradually get a little bit more detail about a number of things,” Horne said. “We just have to be patient.”

Limited liability companies bought the five downtown properties for Miscavige’s retail plan in January and February of 2017. After the Times reported the purchases, Miscavige met with City Council members in March 2017 to explain the properties were part of a more than $55 million proposal to bring high-end retail to empty storefronts and build a movie theater and entertainment complex with actor and parishioner Tom Cruise.

Spend your days with Hayes

Spend your days with Hayes

Subscribe to our free Stephinitely newsletter

Columnist Stephanie Hayes will share thoughts, feelings and funny business with you every Monday.

You’re all signed up!

Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.

Explore all your options

Miscavige presented his proposal one month after the city approved a conceptual plan for Imagine Clearwater, a now-$64 million renovation of the downtown waterfront as a strategy to revitalize the surrounding downtown blocks.

Miscavige’s offer depended on the city ending its pursuit of a 1.4-acre vacant lot on Pierce Street that the church had also tried to buy. When the council voted in April 2017 to buy the lot, Miscavige cut communication.

Then the flood of purchases took off. Of the $103 million spent by the companies since 2017, $99 million was in cash. About 32 different companies controlled by Scientology parishioners made the purchases, but the transactions created clear assemblages of land, the Times investigation showed.

Today, companies tied to Scientology own most of the retail space within walking distance of Imagine Clearwater’s footprint on the waterfront.

At Monday’s meeting, Horne said Miscavige reiterated his desire to acquire the Pierce Street lot to build a swimming pool and other amenities for parishioners. The property is across the street from the former City Hall and adjacent to the church’s 13-story Oak Cove religious retreat.

Preliminary plans have called for a mix of housing and retail developments on the Pierce Street lot, the City Hall property and the site of the now-demolished Harborview Center.

The three properties border the 22-acre, city-owned waterfront where Imagine Clearwater plans call for gardens, a concert green with a 4,000-seat covered amphitheater, a gateway plaza and a bluff walk with views of the Intracoastal waterway.

Delk, the assistant city manager, said he gave Miscavige an update on the city’s plan to solicit feedback from developers for the three properties in February.

“What’s important to the park is having an active edge, and the city has limited opportunities for that,” Delk said.

The Imagine Clearwater project is only about 80 percent paid for, including up to $30 million in city bonds. Officials have discussed securing funding for the rest of the park through potential proceeds of the sale of the city-owned land on the bluff.

While voters would have to approve the sale or lease of the charter-restricted City Hall and Harborview properties, the Pierce street property falls outside the protected area and does not require a referendum for sale or lease.

In a recent analysis based on market rates in the downtown area, the city’s consultants, HR&A Advisors, determined that the city could turn a profit by building a 22-story condominium on the Harborview site. Although rental apartments are preferred to attract year-round residents, consultants said the City Hall site would be most profitable with a condominium.

Because of the size and configuration, consultants said a mid-rise apartment would be challenging to market and implement on the Pierce Street lot unless it is developed in conjunction with the nearby City Hall site.

Horne said Miscavige did not offer to buy the Pierce Street property on Monday but that “he still feels as strongly about acquiring that piece of property than he ever has.”